Exploring Malaysian Borneo – The Island You’ve Never Heard About

Geography was never my strong suit, so when I heard about a place called “Borneo”, I had no idea what it was and what it was about – and to be honest, I had no interest either. Aren’t we all supposed to go to Bali, or the Philippines to enjoy that beach vacation and do exactly what every other millennial is doing? What is this jungle Borneo thing? Social Media will never direct you to a place like this, which I guess is a blessing and curse. But, after learning about it and seeing it, I wanted to share this island I’ve never heard about, because there is so much to see, and so much to learn. It will change your outlook on nature and humans completely. 


Borneo is the large, but fairly unknown island, situated in the middle of the southwest corner of the pacific ocean. It’s surrounded by the countries Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and home to three of them. Many exotic plant species and special animals found nowhere else in the world live on this giant piece of land. If you’ve never heard of it before, then now is your chance.

Borneo is divided into three different parts. The largest part is known as Indonesian Kalimatan (the southern-half), followed by Malaysian Borneo (further divided into the states of Sarawak and Sabah), and Brunei Borneo (a small country in the middle north). Most people will fly into Kota Kinabalu – the Malaysian tourist capital of sorts and the island’s largest city. From there, people either catch flights or use buses or taxis to fan out to different cities. I landed in Kota Kinabalu because there was a direct flight from Bali (Denpasar Ngurah Rai Airport).

Wildlife and Nature:

One of the biggest draws to Borneo is the chance to see wild orangutans. These critically endangered animals only live in two parts of the world – Borneo and Sumatra (Indonesia) and there are only an estimated  70,000 left in the wild. So, under current conditions and without careful preservation of their natural environment, they may, sadly, go extinct within our lifetime. 

Certainly, there are other animals to protect too, and we need to be protecting these creatures too, but Orangutans have a special place within the human heart because of how similar they look and act to us humans. In fact, the word Orangutan comes from the Malay words “Orang” meaning “Man” and “Utan” meaning “Forest”, therefore “Orangutan” means “Man of the forest” in the native language. Orangutans are also one of our closest genetic relatives with 97% related genes. 

The other disheartening fact is that the forests are being decimated as we speak, due to palm oil plantations. When you look outside your window on the drive to the native forests, all you will see is palm oil plantations. A single type of tree in rows and rows that goes on for miles on end. This is compared to the rich, dense rainforests of Borneo proper. It’s lush and inviting – calming even. It’s how the land should be. I will take some time to promote a few conservation organizations who undertake this enormous task of protecting these forests.

Touring these areas of native forest provides jobs for the locals and turns them away from poaching or other harmful activities. It also gives them incentive to protect their lands from palm oil. 


How to Get There – Kota Kinabalu:

The main gateway to Borneo is through Kota Kinabalu (KK). Cheap flights from Bali can be found that go directly to KK. Other options are from Cebu, Philippines or even Manila. I got a flight to Kota Kinabalu from Bali (Denpasar) so as to avoid the one-month visa-free problem while traveling in Indonesia. That was the cheapest flight to a new country. If you’re in southeast asia already or planning on going, then it’s worth checking to see if your city has a direct flight to KK.

What to Do:

Within this city, there’s so much to do and see. You’ll want to check the nightly fresh fish market right at the main harbors edge. A few blocks away is the fresh foods market – a whole section of this warehouse is devoted to only fruits, another to vegetables, and another to meat. There’s the famous church and bell tower. A short Grab ride away is Tanjung Aru Beach, known for its sunsets. You will also want to visit the City Mosque, which is on the water, and one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. At night the whole main Gaya street turns into a street food avenue. During the day, you’ll want to island hop over to Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park to go snorkeling and diving. It’s a vibrant city with lots to see. Plus, everything here is cheap.

Mount Kinabalu:

Many people come to Borneo to summit Mount Kinabalu – a mountain of 13,435ft. It’s a grueling trek that costs a lot of money due to a new permitting system. But the thrill and challenge of climbing up this mountain is worth the struggle to some people. I’ll put that the total cost of the climb is upwards of $400 USD at the least for a two day/one night summit – thus for anyone interested I can direct you to planning links, otherwise save it for later. You can get to the base of Mount Kinabalu and see it on the drive up towards Ranau – a small city on the mountain side. This is usually a place to stop in between the drive from KK and Sepilok. From KK to Ranau, you can take a bus or taxi (best option if you have four people) from the map’s location for about 100 MYR ($25 USD) for the taxi and $7-8 USD on a bus. 

Where to Stay:

Kota Kinabalu (KK)

The hostels in KK are the places to go to. Lots of nightlife surprisingly, and full of other travelers. The best accomodation is B&B@21 at $6 USD per night. Ray, one of the staff, is very knowledgeable about how to plan your entire trip in Kota Kinabalu. He planned the whole week traveling through this island and even made all the necessary reservations. Lots of thanks to him. The lodging here is friendly and a good base to start from on your next adventures through Borneo.


Routing through Ranau to get to Sepilok, your only option for sleep to break up the long journey is through the Ranau Backpackers Hostel. It’s a nice, secure place to stay with a fresh fruit and vegetable market only steps away. The cool mountain temperatures make this a great place to escape the heat before heading back down towards Sepilok. 


In Sepilok there are many options to stay. One of the closest places to stay is the Nature Lodge Sepilok. It has cool air-conditioned dorm rooms and private ones too. You might even see a wild orangutan outside the windows as it’s nearby to a protected forest. A 10 minute walk from the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center or a few dollar grab ride, there’s also a small restaurant directly across. I suggest skipping any of their cooked breakfast as I got sick from one of the hot dishes.


 Check In Lodge is the best option for getting settled in Kuching. The staff is super friendly and the rooms are cool. To get to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve is only around 25MYR or $6 USD and so it is close by to the things you need.


Where to See Orangutans:


If you’ve already gone to KK and made your way to Ranau, or if you intend on doing the Kinabatangan River Cruise, then Sepilok is the place to go to. You can go to the rehabilitation center that helps orphaned, injured, sick, domesticated, or threatened Orangutans regain their natural instincts and learn to be wild again. At the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre there are two feeding times – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. During these times you can see Orangutans crawl out of the jungle and eat food. It’s a lot easier, and safer than going in the jungle yourself. Then there is also a play and feeding area for you to observe the animals jump from swing to swing. 


Another option is going to Kuching on the Sarawak side of Malaysian Borneo and visiting the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. It’s a similar set up to the Sepilok Center, although you’d be closer to a major city. The place is only a 25 MYR Grab ride away. So if you are low on time, then this would be the better option.

Kinabatangan River

Finally, another option is to go to the Kinabatangan River and do a river cruise (means leaving a lodge every sunrise and sunset to go on the river and spot animals). I luckily saw two wild orangutans in the forest. It’s amazing to see them in the trees by themselves, since they could be deep within the jungle, camouflaged. Even if you don’t see an Orangutan, then you will see tons of monkeys, crocodiles, other animals, and the Bornean forest.

To get a sense of the plight these animals are in check these links:

CNN: Borneo Orangutan Population in Decline

The Guardian: 150,000 Lost in 16 Years

Youtube: Mulu Land Grab


Other Wildlife:

Proboscis monkeys, giant saltwater crocodiles , long tailed macaques, short tailed macaques, lots of different insects, leeches, slow loris, flying squirrels.

Other Activities & Further Tips:

There is the potential to take a diving trip to the islands off of Semporna. It has world class sea-life in places like Mabul. However, there is a concern for Filipino Sea Pirates – who kidnap tourists and execute them. Nowadays, the Malaysian government in the Sabah region has stepped up security. There is a huge chinese tourist influx and it appears to be safe – without incident since 2016. You’ll have to evaluate for yourself whether you would want to visit or not. As a note: most safety concerns while traveling relate to bus & moped accidents. As a note: Borneo is a hotbed of mosquito related diseases, including malaria and dengue fever. You should bring the appropriate medication and mosquito repellant if you visit. 

Even if you are not into the jungle, there’s still a lot to see. Malaysia is a melting pot of different cuisines and there’s impeccable diving found close by to KK or other cities on the island. A visit to the local mosques is also a must. There’s a ton of small treasures found nowhere else in the world.

Packing List:

A list of the necessary items to bring to Borneo: 

Rain Jacket, dry bag, telephoto lens or 2x teleconverter, binoculars if you have space, mosquito repellant, leech socks, long pants.

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